A Letter from 12 War Zones

As a young physician in the 1990s, Samantha Nutt thought she knew how to help the women and children who are the victims of conflict. Then, she writes in her new book, she went on her first overseas mission.

By Maura Kelly
samantha nutt illustration damned nations book jacket photo
Humanitarian doctor/activist Samantha Nutt and her new book, which is part memoir, part call-to-action
Photograph: Illustration by QuickHoney

I was in Liberia [in 1997, when the country was under the control of warlord Charles Taylor] to do UNICEF research. A physician’s assistant, a Liberian who was running a U.N. clinic there, was suspected of selling medical supplies to a local market, and I’d been asked to confront him.

I show up in this big U.N. car, and here is this guy who is treating hundreds of people a week, through a food-for-work program. He was selling surplus supplies he hadn’t been able to use so that he could feed himself and his family. And he was swapping medications—if he had a surplus of one kind of medication, he’d use it to buy another he needed. He was probably making $5 a week. He hadn’t been given the food he’d been promised [as compensation], and I was the first U.N. worker he’d seen in three months. The man’s actions were, morally, wholly justifiable, and I thought, We can’t keep chasing our tails. We need to allow people on the ground to be involved in their own reconstruction.

War Child does exactly that, working with local partners, like government ministries and community groups, in countries wrestling with war. Most of our overseas staff is recruited locally, and the end goal is always that our partners will take full ownership and our presence will no longer be necessary.

In the book, you warn that the rise in Western military involvement in humanitarian efforts over the past decade is “an increasingly risky strategy with devastating consequences for both soldiers and aid workers.” What’s wrong with our armies helping to build schools and distribute food overseas?

In many countries, aid workers and NGOs are seen as having imperialistic overtones. In such circumstances, aid workers are often viewed as an extension of Western military and political objectives and become easy targets for extremist and other violent factions. The idea that there can be an independent humanitarian space has, in a practical sense, completely eroded, compromising our ability to respond to human suffering and endangering civilian lives.

Tell us about your two friends who were killed in Iraq.

Aquila al-Hashimi was a multi-lingual Iraqi politician and internationalist from a prominent Shia family. I was able to work in Iraq because she personally vouched for me, which was a huge risk for her. Once Saddam Hussein fell, she was one of three women who were appointed to the interim government. We were having tea in her home, and she said she felt as if Saddam and war had stolen the last 30 years of her life. She said, “I hope it’s over, because I’m ready to live my life.” She was a progressive choice for the coalition government, a bold feminist by any standard. I thought she’d be prime minister someday. Instead, in 2003 she was ambushed in front of her home, shot and killed.

Margaret Hassan was a British national married to an Iraqi. She’d lived in Iraq since 1972, working for the British Consulate in Baghdad, and she became the head of CARE’s program there in 1991. She was on her way to the office one morning in 2004 when armed men stopped the car and severely beat her driver and security guard and kidnapped her. Hundreds of Iraqis marched to demand her release; she’d spent half her life helping wounded and malnourished Iraqi children. And yet she was killed—to protest the British presence in Iraq, it seems. Her body was never found. Her kidnappers released three videos of her. This is still very difficult to talk about. It’s so clear how deathly afraid she was, and she was not a person who backed away from difficulty.

Did the deaths of these women change you?

First Published September 14, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


Post new comment

Click to add a comment